DENVER -- Listening to a panel of mayors is both inspiring and depressing: inspiring because they are such optimistic, non-ideological, can-do realists; depressing because they so vividly demonstrate, by contrast, everything that is wrong, cramped, broken, gridlocked and stupid about our national politics.
If you want hope and change in politics, mayors offer tons of it. The key to success in their jobs, they say, is to avoid -- as indeed they do -- partisan bickering and focus on What Works.
Democrat and Republican alike, they have one wish for Congress and for the presidential contenders who will debate here Wednesday night: They want everyone in Washington -- and everyone who goes to Washington -- to grow up, get serious and work together across aisles that have become chasms and outside parties that have become prisons of ideology, interest groups and unshakable incumbency.
"If there is one thing I could ask the presidential candidates, it would be, 'How are you going to end the partisanship that has frozen everything?'" said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Unless Washington heals itself, the mayors say, the federal government will be unable to play its indispensable role in building and retooling American cities. The nation's 363 metropolitan areas are the engines of growth in the 21st-century economy, accounting for 90 percent of gross domestic product and 86 percent of U.S. jobs.
On the eve of the first presidential debate in Denver -- the topic is the economy -- I represented The Huffington Post in moderating a discussion hosted by the nonpartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors. Besides Rawlings-Blake, the mayors were Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City; Scott Smith of Mesa, Ariz.; Kevin Johnson of Sacramento; and Michael Hancock of Denver.
The session at the Denver Art Museum was prompted by the mayors' justifiable concern that the fate of America's cities has been little discussed by President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney on the campaign trail. And there is no guarantee it will come up in the debates.
The mayors talked of pressing needs to build and rebuild highways, water systems, broadband connectivity and all of the other sinews of metropolitan life.
They spoke of the urgent task of repairing and re-imagining the nation's human infrastructure, especially in elementary and secondary education but also in high-tech and job skills training.
Aside from the sheer maintenance problems, they said that cities, with their growing clusters of talent, ambition and brains, must be test beds of innovation as the U.S. tries to keep up with striving, job-producing mega-cities around the world.
"We used to think of the states as the laboratories of democracy," said Smith. "Well now the cities are the laboratories." To succeed, he said, they need not only to play "prevent defense" but also to think "aspirationally." The nation as a whole may have lost how to do that, Smith said, but the cities have not forgotten -- and cannot afford to forget.
Time and again, the mayors returned to the theme that the way they do their jobs and face their challenges should instruct Obama, Romney and Congress. "We don't have the luxury of being able to avoid common sense in running cities," said Johnson.
The lack of urgency in Washington is infuriating, they said, and counterproductive. "They don't have to pass a budget," said Rawlings-Blake. "If I don't do my budget, my head's on the chopping block."
The more divided Congress is, the more the president must try to govern from the middle, said Cornett. "It's up to the executive to go to the political center."
"The beauty of a republic is that those whom we elect to represent us are supposed to be held accountable," said Hancock, a political scientist by training. "How is there accountability when 96 percent of incumbents are returned to Congress?"
Good question, and not likely one that will be asked or answered Wednesday night.
In the meantime, mayors will continue to do what they do as leaders, administrators, innovators, civic boosters and sales managers. Rawlings-Blake talked of new biotech projects in Baltimore; Smith discussed giant algae beds and a new airport in Mesa; Johnson and his wife, education reformer Michelle Rhee, work on charter schools; Cornett put himself and his whole city on a collective diet. ("We've lost more than a million pounds," he told me.)
And the mayor of Denver showed off his gleaming city, which, on this gloriously clear day, is truly a global showplace -- the result, in part, of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment financed by local voters in the previous decade.
Anyone in Washington -- or preparing for a debate in Denver -- listening?
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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